Quakers in colonial Pennsylvania

In 1681, William Penn became ‘sole’ proprietor of Pennsylvania. He had already participated in the establishment of what became New Jersey, but now he could set up his Holy Experiment in religious and political freedom, exactly as he thought right.

He advertised for settlers, explaining that Pennsylvania would be democratic, tolerant of all religions, and a place where people from all walks of life would be welcome. Many responded, and during 1682 twenty-three ships sailed up the Delaware, carrying about 2000 settlers between them. They came from all over Britain, with particularly large numbers from Wales, Yorkshire and the Midlands. Many German Mennonites came too, thanks to Penn’s visit to the Rhineland in 1677.  In the following years, thanks to William Edmundson’s missionary work, a wave of Irish Quaker settlers arrived. Pennsylvania was open to all, but the vast majority of early settlers seem to have been Quakers, or kindred spirits like the Mennonites.

Penn arrived himself in 1682, and called a colonial assembly to discuss his draft constitution, the ‘Frame of Government’. After some amendments, it was soon agreed. It included personal rights (property, suffrage, consumer protection, education, religious freedom), a criminal code, and provision for the poor, all overseen by a Council, and a House of Representatives.

Penn had also come with plans for Philadelphia (the city of Brotherly Love), calling it a ‘green countrie towne’. It pioneered a grid pattern and included plenty of open spaces, and was intended to be a healthy environment conducive to peaceful and productive living. All the land needed for the city or surrounding farms was purchased from the Indians, and relationships with them were good.

Penn’s first period in Pennsylvania was cut short after only two years. In 1684 he had to return to Britain to defend his rights, and could not return until 1699. He appointed a succession of people to act for him, and was in regular touch,  but little happened in governance terms except for fruitless attempts to collect taxes. The settlers resisted all such efforts, enjoying their new freedom, and simply got on with their lives.

The Quakers looked after each other, built meeting houses, and educated their children, founding Penn Charter School in 1689. Leadership was in the hands of Thomas Lloyd, leader of the Welsh Quakers and a member of the Lloyds clan of iron manufacturers and future bankers.

Pennsylvania prospered. Quakers continued to arrive, alongside many others from across the Atlantic and from other colonies, and when Penn returned in 1699, for a busy and effective two years, Pennsylvania was about 50% Quaker.  Penn oversaw the revision of the constitution as the ‘Charter of Privileges’, and clarified political responsibilities in a number of ways.  He had to leave in 1701, again for political reasons, and was never able to return.

The second generation of Quakers was inevitably different from the pioneers who had fled persecution. Quakerism was the dominant religion, and they were comfortable in their peaceful lives and Quaker routines. They mixed with non-Quakers, absorbing some of their ideas, and some left, or were forced to leave when they married non-Quakers. They were challenged for their relaxed approach as early as 1690, by George Keith, headteacher of the new school, and many of the hundred or so missionaries who visited over the years commented on the relative complacency they saw, and challenged it, sometimes with success. In 1758, for example, John Woolman appealed for an end to slavery amongst Quakers, catalysing real action at last. By 1776 no Pennsylvanian Quakers were involved.

Quakers such as James Logan, Thomas Story and others, were prominent in public life. They were often faced with awkward challenges imposed by the Crown, such as oath taking requirements for public officials, and military conflicts in which they wanted no part.  Some coped by withdrawing from office. Others ceased to be Quakers.  But for half a century many found ways of accommodating their principles while remaining in office, and the legislature remained largely in Quaker hands until the 1750s. The end of their involvement finally came as the independence movement grew. Their refusal to fight was seen as supporting the status quo, and the choice was stark and unavoidable. Either way, Quaker dominance in Pennsylvania politics came to an end.

Colonial Pennsylvania was a great success story in many ways. Its openness and freedoms made it a wonderful place for new ideas to develop. Science flourished (including many Quakers such as botanist John Bartram), and the American Philosophical Society and the University of Pennsylvania were founded. The economy prospered, with much international trade, and their currency was always sound. Pennsylvania became a major power amongst the colonies. It was in Philadelphia that the Declaration of Independence was crafted. The constitution of the new United States owed much to Penn’s vision of ‘inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’.

Further Reading and Credits

external links
further reading
  • Jones, Rufus M, Sharpless, Isaac, Gunmere Amelia M, The Quakers in the American Colonies, Macmillan, London, 1911.